J. W. Burrow

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John Wyon Burrow (4 June 1935 – 3 November 2009) was an English historian.[1] In 1954 he won a history scholarship at Christ's College, Cambridge. His published works include assessments of the Whig interpretation of history ('Whig history') and of historiography generally.

His 1981 book, A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past,[2] won the Wolfson History Prize. In that work he proposed that the historians William Stubbs, John Richard Green and Edward Augustus Freeman, writing in the 19c., were historical scholars with little or no experience of public affairs, with views of the present which were romantically historicised, and who were drawn to history by an antiquarian passion for the past and by a patriotic and populist impulse to identify the nation and its institutions as the collective subject of English history, making

"the new historiography of early medieval times an extension, filling out and democratising, of older Whig notions of continuity. It was Stubbs who presented this most substantially; Green who made it popular and dramatic... It is in Freeman...of the three the most purely a narrative historian, that the strains are most apparent."

In the same work Burrow remarked of another nineteenth century historian, James Anthony Froude, that he was a leading promoter of the imperialist excitement of the closing years of the century, but that in the mass of his work even empire took second place to religion.

In another chapter, under the title The German inheritance: a people and its institutions, Burrow referred to the earlier historian Edward Gibbon, who had been writing in the reign of the Hanoverian monarch George III of the United Kingdom at the time of the American Revolutionary War. Burrow mentioned that, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon, as if affecting a superiority to patriotic prejudice and at the same time affirming its existence in his own time, had written that the Saxons were, for an Englishman, the barbarians from whom he derives his name, his laws and perhaps his origin.[3]

The J. W. Burrow papers,[4] catalogued posthumously between 2010 and 2012, are now housed at The Keep, Brighton.

See also[edit]


  • Evolution and Society (1966).
  • (with Stefan Collini and Donald Winch), That Noble Science of Politics (1983).
  • A Liberal Descent (1981).[5]
  • Whigs and Liberals (1988).
  • The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848-1914 (2000).
  • A History of Histories (2007).


  1. ^ The Times, ‘John Burrow: author of A History of Histories’, 2 December 2009.
  2. ^ A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past by J.W. Burrow, Cambridge University Press, 1981. ISBN 0 521 24079 4
  3. ^ Burrow cites Decline iv.386, and cf i.349.
  4. ^ http://www.thekeep.info/collections/getrecord/GB181_SxMs107
  5. ^ The image chosen for the front cover of A Liberal Descent: Victorian historians and the English past was the sculpture of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in Saxon Dress executed by William Theed (1804-91) for the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert by William Theed at the Royal Collection. In the book Burrow had written of 'peremptory and legalistic constitutionalism changing into subtler political persuasiveness', and of 'the intersection of personal and public mythologies'. The theme of the book was the idea of a Whig interpretation of English history ('Whig history') incorporating the two fundamental notions of progress and continuity, the one making it possible to treat English history as a success story, the other endorsing a pragmatic, gradualist political style as the foundation of English freedom. In studies of Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay, William Stubbs, Edward Augustus Freeman and James Anthony Froude, Burrow attempted to place them in a cultural and historiographical context; and sought to establish the nature and limits of the self-confidence which the Victorians were able to derive from the national past, with reference to three great crises of English history: the Norman conquest of England, the English Reformation and the 'Glorious Revolution' of the seventeenth century. The theme of the inscription on the plinth of the statue (alluding to the poet's lament for the passing of 'Sweet Auburn', Oliver Goldsmith The Deserted Village) may also be seen in connection with what Burrow mentions in the later book The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848-1914: '...the growth of great cities with mass population.... The great city and its teeming population was the dominant social image of the period: its excitement, its horrors, its threat to social order and decency... its dwarfing impersonality. It was in the great city that the new democracy lurked, perhaps beyond the reach of civilizing influence', such as (there could be added) the influence of Prince Albert connected with the Great Exhibition and the South Kensington Museums, Imperial College and Albert Hall of 'Albertopolis'; but Albert's name is not among those in the index of Burrow's book.

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